My St. Louis sister called me recently, in a snit. She was in the throes of hosting a dinner party, occasioned by a beloved girlfriend’s 50th birthday. Sissy had presented her friend with a handmade certificate, redeemable for dinner for 12 at Sissy’s house, on a mutually agreed-upon evening, the guests to be of the birthday girl’s choosing. Isn’t that a darling idea? Sissy gives you leave to steal it.
But back to the snit. The dinner had been months in the planning, every detail engineered to reflect the honoree’s favorite flowers, colors and especially her favorite foods. The evening before the party, as she was making the boeuf bourguignon to be served the next night, Sissy got a text from a guest. “Hey, it’s Julie,” it said. “Remember I’m gluten-free.”
Sissy barely knew Julie, so there was no “remembering” about her gluten-freeness. “She’s known for a month about this dinner, and she lets me know the night before that she’s gluten-free? Who does that?” fumed Sissy. “Put that in your column.” And so I am, because the story has a good ending.
Sissy gets over her boeuf
After the initial hissy fit, Sissy did what good hosts do. She gritted her teeth and took care of business. The boeuf recipe called for three tablespoons of all-purpose flour. She got gluten-free flour and made a separate little batch for the ill-mannered Julie. She bought gluten-free crackers for the appetizer and an individual gluten-free dessert.
“In the middle of my venting about G-free Julie, I remembered that I was doing the dinner as an act of love for my friend, who would give you the shirt off her back,” says Sissy. “And I knew it would mean a lot to her that everyone had a great dinner, including Julie. After that, I didn’t mind going to any extra trouble.”
All good parties are an act of love, don’t you think? And also an act of courage, a quality more typically associated with, say, the French resistance movement than with entertaining, and yet you must admit good party hosts possess a kind of fearlessness: So what if my kitchen is tiny/my furniture outdated/my dog sheds everywhere/people won’t know each other? So what? (Or in Sissy’s case, she was giving her friend a love bomb; so what if she didn’t know some of her dinner guests.)
Be bold with the guest list
When I look at some of the groups I put together in my early days of party-hosting, I marvel at my own bravery, or maybe it was stupidity. I had a dinner party once to which I’d invited several couples who’d never met each other. One woman in particular was an outspoken liberal, one gentleman an equally vocal conservative.
I’d done all the tactical hostess things I preach about: The hootch was flowing, the lighting low, the guests from varied circles. During cocktails, everyone got on like a house on fire.
Then we sat down to dinner and conversation turned to politics. Suddenly people were screaming at each other. It got ugly. The liberal and the conservative went after each other with hammer and tongs. I changed the topic several times and thought I had them separated but, like bull elks during rut, they wheeled and charged each other again and again.
It took until dessert to get them off politics, and the party never got its groove back. For a time I was horrified about it, but you know what? People still talk about that party, and wouldn’t you rather something happened that people will talk about later?
It’s always worth the risk to invite people who won’t know each other. Your parties can become the catalyst for great friendships, and there’s nothing more meaningful than that.
And speaking of fearless
My adorable friend Steven Stolman of New York, Palm Beach and Wisconsin has just published a humdinger of a book, Confessions of a Serial Entertainer. Not only has he packed it with delicious-sounding, low-fuss recipes—I can’t wait to try Hurry-Up Coq Au Vin, Kinda Cassoulet and Chili Elizabeth Taylor—he has included witty, common-sense treatises on all matters social, such as What to Wear to a Cocktail Party (“Think about how you look from the waist up, as that’s how people see you at a stand-up cocktail party.”) and What Makes a Good Party Host (“Control freaks have the most wretched parties.”) He encourages the reluctant to entertain (“Buying a box of six inexpensive wine glasses at Pier One is a step in the right direction.”) and unapologetically discourages those who attend his parties from helping out in the kitchen (“We end up bumping into each other, things get broken and, frankly, a lot of the hocus pocus that goes on in my kitchen is for my eyes only.”) On that point we disagree—I love a little help with my hocus pocus—but otherwise we are cut from the same cloth. You can find Steven’s book on Amazon or at The Little Flower Shop in Westwood.
Stolman’s Second-favorite Spread*
JANE’S CHEESE from Steven Stolman
1 bunch scallions
1 (4.3-ounce) package crumbled cooked bacon
4 cups cheddar cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Crackers, for serving
Combine scallions, bacon, cheese, mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse mixture until combined. Transfer to a serving bowl and season with pepper to taste. Chill before serving. Serve with very simple crackers.
*His favorite being the Southern staple, pimento cheese
Questions about entertaining? Merrily would love to answer them. Email them to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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